Moroccan Earthquake Shattered Thousands of Lives

 Rubble is seen in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Amizmiz, Morocco September 16, 2023. (Reuters)
Rubble is seen in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Amizmiz, Morocco September 16, 2023. (Reuters)

Moroccan Earthquake Shattered Thousands of Lives

 Rubble is seen in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Amizmiz, Morocco September 16, 2023. (Reuters)
Rubble is seen in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Amizmiz, Morocco September 16, 2023. (Reuters)

With their arms around each other, three boys walked through the streets of their town at the foot of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.

It could have been a scene like millions around the world that day. But in the Moroccan town of Amizmiz, the boys were walking through rubble, one week after an earthquake rattled their community’s homes, schools, mosques and cafes. Their possessions were buried beneath tons of mud and clay bricks, along with an untold number of people whom the boys knew.

A little girl held her palms to her cheeks, stunned at the destruction.

The 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Morocco at 11:11 p.m. on Sept. 8, causing mass death in mountain villages near the epicenter that have collapsed in on themselves. A magnitude 4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later.

Entire villages higher up the mountains were leveled. In many, at least half of the population appears to have died.

Photos of the disaster show how fathers, mothers, children and their animals remain trapped under bricks, appliances and fallen ceilings. Going without power for days, residents see at night by the light of their phones.

“It felt like a bomb went off,” 34-year-old Mohamed Messi of Ouirgane said.

When mud and clay brick — traditional materials used for construction in the region — turn to rubble, they leave less space for oxygen than collapsed construction materials in countries like Türkiye and Syria, which were also hit by quakes this year.

The day after the quake, hundreds of residents of the mountain town of Moulay Brahim gathered to perform funeral rites, praying on rugs arranged neatly in the street before carrying blanket-covered bodies from the town’s health center to its cemetery.

“People are suffering here very much. We are in dire need of ambulances. Please send us ambulances to Moulay Brahim. The matter is urgent. This appeal must reach everyone, and on a large scale. Please save us,” said Ayoub Toudite, the head of a community group in Moulay Brahim. “We hope for urgent intervention from the authorities. There is no network. We are trying to call, but to no avail.”

The United Nations reported that roughly 300,000 people were likely affected by the earthquake. UNICEF said that likely included 100,000 children.

As the Moroccan government approved only limited assistance from four countries and certain NGOs, Salah Ancheu, a 28-year-old from Amizmiz, told The Associated Press that nearby villages desperately needed more assistance. Residents of his town swept all the rubble off the main road so that cars, motorcycles and aid crews can reach villages further along the mountain roads. A giant pile of steel rods, baskets and broken cinderblocks lay just off the center of the road.

“It’s a catastrophe,” he said. ‘’There aren’t ambulances, there aren’t police, at least for right now. We don’t know what’s next.’’

In parts of Amizmiz that weren’t leveled by the temblor, families began to return on Sunday to sort through the wreckage and retrieve valuables from homes where at least one floor remained standing. People cheered the trucks full of soldiers speeding through the road bisecting the town, as women and children sat under tents eating bread, cheese and vegetable stew.

Hafida Fairouje, who came from Marrakech to help her sister’s family in Amizmiz, said smaller nearby villages had nothing left, expressing shock that it took authorities about 20 hours after the earthquake to reach some of the nearby villages.

Morocco on Monday created a special government fund for earthquake-related efforts, to which King Mohammed VI later donated the equivalent of $97 million (91 million euros). Enaam Mayara, the president of the parliament’s House of Councilors, said it would likely take five or six years to rebuild some affected areas.

A foul stench permeated the air through the beginning of the week as rescuers worked to dig out bodies and sort through wreckage in smaller villages.

In Tafeghaghte, residents estimated that more than half of the 160 people who lived in there had perished.

Aid began to arrive and piles of flour, blankets and yogurts were stacked in villages where most buildings were reduced to rubble. People said they had been given food and water, but they still worried about shelter and their long-term prospects.

Moroccan military forces and international teams from four approved countries — Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom — erected tents near Amizmiz while their teams wound through mountain roads to contribute to ongoing rescue efforts in villages such as Imi N’Tala, where a slice of mountain fell and destroyed the vast majority of homes and killed many residents.

Young boys sang “Hayya Hayya” — the theme song of the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar — as the country’s trucks drove through the mountains.

“The mountain was split in half and started falling. Houses were fully destroyed,” a local man, Ait Ougadir Al Houcine, said Tuesday as crews worked to recover bodies, including his sister’s. “Some people lost all their cattle. We have nothing but the clothes we’re wearing. Everything is gone.”

Families and children relocated to yellow tents provided by Moroccan authorities as fears set in about the time it would likely take to rebuild their homes.

“We just started the new school year, but the earthquake came and ruined everything,” Naima Ait Brahim Ouali said, standing under an umbrella outside of a yellow tent as children play inside. “We just want somewhere to hide from the rain.”

After King Mohammed VI donated blood in Marrakech and later presided over an emergency response meeting, Moroccan officials said the government would fund both emergency relief and future rebuilding for residents of roughly 50,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed by allocating cash, depending on the level of destruction.

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”